Becoming A Team Teacher In Japan
by David Hayter
Japan is a one of a kind country in many ways. I’ve had the opportunity to live and work here since 2014. The English education system here is probably quite different when compared to other countries. All students in Japan are required to study English and both teachers and students spend a lot of time at school.
Is team teaching in Japan really so special?
First off, let’s try to figure out what team teaching means. On the surface, team teaching appears to be just like solo-teaching but involves two or more teachers working in a classroom together. However, the team teaching situation in Japan involves a lot more complexities than you would probably think.
A lot of us aren’t trained teachers
The academic requirement for most ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan is that they possess a bachelor’s degree in any subject. When many ALTs come to Japan, it may be their first time working in a professional environment. There can sometimes be a steep learning curve in the transition from being a student to becoming a teacher.
Although I didn’t study how to teach English, I do know what it takes to learn a foreign language. Foreign languages have always interested me. In high school I studied Spanish and Japanese. In college I continued studying Japanese and took some classes for Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Turkish. When planning lessons, I often think back to how I was taught and how I learned languages.
I am fortunate to have received a month of training in my current teaching program. However, many ALTs don’t receive any formal training. A lot of what we learn either comes from trial and error, talking to other ALTs, or online resources. That’s why online learning communities like this one and ALT Training Online are invaluable in filling in the gaps and helping us improve our skills as teachers.
Success in team teaching depends on how you deal with people
A team-teaching situation creates a different social dynamic in the classroom as two teachers have to work together to advance the class and there isn’t always one clear person in charge.
From my experience, I’ve found that the people who perform the best ALTs in Japan aren’t necessarily those with the best teaching skills but those who have the best people skills. The same goes for JTEs (Japanese teachers of English). If someone doesn’t like you, it’s going to be really hard to work with them. If you are pretty likeable and show willingness to learn, you’ll have a pretty good time.
It helps to think of your fellow teachers and students like customers
Sometimes ALTs can get lost when thinking about what they can contribute to the students’ education. One thing I do is to take a customer service approach. Think about all of the people who you can help. What is the best way to help them?
The first rule of customer service is to understand the needs of your customers. ALTs in Japan usually have two customers: Japanese students and Japanese teachers of English. I find myself keeping them both in mind as I work with my team of teachers to deliver good lessons for the students.
There can be cultural differences and a language barrier
Another hurdle to overcome in dealing with people in Japan is understanding Japanese culture. While most people around the world are more similar than different, there are a lot of unspoken rules and norms for interactions between the various people in a school. There is definitely a hierarchical structure that can sometimes be very confusing for those who aren’t familiar with it.
We want to work together to do what we can’t do alone
Every summer when we run our month long ALT training, I tell the new ALTs that the goal of team teaching is to do something together that we can’t do separately.
ALTs in the classroom are viewed as a human resource to provide knowledge and model English. The JTEs teach their classes more often than we do, have been trained to be teachers, and know more about how to deal with their students. In this type of situation, we want to bolster each other’s strengths and mitigate each other’s weaknesses.
Supporting the students and teachers is paramount
Depending on the situation, being an ALT can be frustrating at times. I’ve heard about some ALTs who really want to teach English classes their own way but are bound to the material in the textbook because students have to get ready for tests. The result is often that students are technically proficient in reading, writing, and translating English but can be lacking skills in other areas like speaking, listening, conversation, creativity, and spontaneity.
Another challenge in teaching Japanese students is that all students have to study English. They are also moved along regardless of performance. That means that level of the students we have in each class can vary greatly. Some students know everything in the lesson, others have little to no interest in learning English.
Despite these challenges, I always do my best to try to support the students no matter what. Since I can speak Japanese, I try to let these students know that being able to speak English could possibly lead to better job opportunities in the future. It’s always a good way to make friends and learn more about the world.
When thinking about team teaching, it’s important to remember the team aspect. By staying flexible and doing my best to support English education in Japan, I’ve learned a lot about how to work with others and how people learn. When it comes to team teaching, it’s all about creating a cohesive team environment!